My last class of my college career was yesterday– “American Gothic,” an English course. We had just finished reading Beloved (which was my fourth time reading it overall, yikes). Our reading list had started in the 17th century so, three centuries later, we had a fairly good understanding of gothic novels in America. For our last class, my professor brought in the film version of Beloved, produced by and starring Oprah.
Now, critics generally agree that the film version of Beloved was a bit of a disaster– everything is sub-mediocre, from the screenplay to the acting to the cinematography. But what watching the film clips really made me think about was how glad I am that I’m an English major.
I’m not saying that good films can’t be made from good books– but I do think that there is inevitably something lost when you transfer a text into a visual medium. Especially with Toni Morrison, who rarely uses linear narrative and often fucks with basic elements like.. character identification, and, um, reality. So you can see how unwise it might be to try and make a film from her works.
But I was also disturbed by my professor’s ease with bringing in the film and showing only the most graphic clips. Her point was well-taken: that the film brushed over all the horrific memories in the novel and condenses them into one brief, confusing flashback. But I do take issue with her perpetuating that insensitivity by showing the most graphic parts of the film out of context. It was literally two minutes of watching dead babies and tortured slaves, without much discussion.
I think her assumption was that our generation has been desensitized to film violence, and therefore we can watch extremely violent scenes any time, any place. Sure, piece of cake.
Except– this is exactly why I’m an English major, and not a film major. Because graphic violence in novels is different. It still forces you to visualize violence in intense detail (for example, from Beloved: “to feel the baby blood pump like oil in her hands; to hold her face so that her head would stay on; …to absorb, still, the death-spasms that shot through that adored body, plump and sweet with life…” hello?!).
But violence in literature also forces you to do more than “watch” violence; it also forces you to reflect on that violence. To think about the meaning of it. Violence in films, or on TV, requires no reflection– just absorption.
So, that’s the long story of how my last class of college was: a little frustrating, but also making me satisfied to have the degree that I do.